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Documenting The Growing Lines At NYC's Food Pantries

Photographer Joey O'Loughlin documents the city's oft-overlooked food distribution problem.

  • <p>Food from a pantry in Washington Heights helps Maria care for her three school-age relatives while their parents work in the Dominican Republic.</p>
  • <p>Nora Balfour is seventy-four, and a great-grandmother who in the Bronx with her son, his wife and children, helping them keep the family together.</p>
  • <p>Each month, more than 1,000 people collect groceries at this food pantry in Jamaica, run by the organization Honor House, and the number keeps rising.</p>
  • <p>Originally conceived as an emergency ration, the pantry bag is the new normal for families whose incomes can no longer keep up with the cost of living.</p>
  • <p>Gregory and Shamar Starzman, ages 12 and 14. Along with their uncle, the boys helped set up and break down two food pantries in two different boroughs.</p>
  • <p>Patrick Dolby, 46, is disabled by AIDS, depends on food pantries to get by. He can offer a remarkable accounting for his living expenses, to the penny.</p>
  • <p>The Hernandez sisters. Their dad, who drives a pedi-cab, and mom, who bakes specialty cakes, use the food pantry at the girls’ school in the Bronx.</p>
  • <p>Valeria Hernandez loves rice pudding.</p>
  • <p>The 2008 financial crisis rocked Paul McKay’s world. His thriving luxury renovation business in New Jersey was leveled and his marriage crumbled.</p>
  • <p>On Saturday mornings, four year-old Brandon and his family make a four-mile round trip to collect food at two Queens food pantries.</p>
  • <p>Saturday morning on the Lower East Side/East Village, a runner cruises past the food line at Father’s Heart Pantry.</p>
  • <p>The line at Father’s Heart Pantry wraps around the block on Saturday mornings. At this trendy Lower East Side corner, neighbors walk on by unaware.</p>
  • <p>Dina Garcia is a 42 year-old mother of two little girls and a 26 year-old son with three children of his own.</p>
  • <p>Mae Tate, a hard-working seamstress in her sixties, was downsized several years ago. Now she works out of her Bed Stuy apartment.</p>
  • <p>A local hair salon in the Lower East Side, across the street from a pantry.</p>
  • <p>In Midwood, families line up on Fridays for bread for Sabbath dinner. Keeping Kosher is expensive and hard for families who live in poverty.</p>
  • <p>Emily Diac, five years-old, waits while her mother shops at a pantry in Richmond Hill.</p>
  • 01 /17

    Food from a pantry in Washington Heights helps Maria care for her three school-age relatives while their parents work in the Dominican Republic.

  • 02 /17

    Nora Balfour is seventy-four, and a great-grandmother who in the Bronx with her son, his wife and children, helping them keep the family together.

  • 03 /17

    Each month, more than 1,000 people collect groceries at this food pantry in Jamaica, run by the organization Honor House, and the number keeps rising.

  • 04 /17

    Originally conceived as an emergency ration, the pantry bag is the new normal for families whose incomes can no longer keep up with the cost of living.

  • 05 /17

    Gregory and Shamar Starzman, ages 12 and 14. Along with their uncle, the boys helped set up and break down two food pantries in two different boroughs.

  • 06 /17

    Patrick Dolby, 46, is disabled by AIDS, depends on food pantries to get by. He can offer a remarkable accounting for his living expenses, to the penny.

  • 07 /17

    The Hernandez sisters. Their dad, who drives a pedi-cab, and mom, who bakes specialty cakes, use the food pantry at the girls’ school in the Bronx.

  • 08 /17

    Valeria Hernandez loves rice pudding.

  • 09 /17

    The 2008 financial crisis rocked Paul McKay’s world. His thriving luxury renovation business in New Jersey was leveled and his marriage crumbled.

  • 10 /17

    On Saturday mornings, four year-old Brandon and his family make a four-mile round trip to collect food at two Queens food pantries.

  • 11 /17

    Saturday morning on the Lower East Side/East Village, a runner cruises past the food line at Father’s Heart Pantry.

  • 12 /17

    The line at Father’s Heart Pantry wraps around the block on Saturday mornings. At this trendy Lower East Side corner, neighbors walk on by unaware.

  • 13 /17

    Dina Garcia is a 42 year-old mother of two little girls and a 26 year-old son with three children of his own.

  • 14 /17

    Mae Tate, a hard-working seamstress in her sixties, was downsized several years ago. Now she works out of her Bed Stuy apartment.

  • 15 /17

    A local hair salon in the Lower East Side, across the street from a pantry.

  • 16 /17

    In Midwood, families line up on Fridays for bread for Sabbath dinner. Keeping Kosher is expensive and hard for families who live in poverty.

  • 17 /17

    Emily Diac, five years-old, waits while her mother shops at a pantry in Richmond Hill.

When New York-based photographer Joey O'Loughlin was asked by the non-profit Food Bank for New York City to take photos for its website, it was the first time she really noticed the food pantries that dot the city she's lived in for 20 years.

"They are around churches and community centers and places like that, and it's not something that captures people’s interests," says O'Loughlin, who noticed that many people walk by the lines without even glancing at them. "But it's also uncomfortable to see people standing in a food line, and its uncomfortable for the people in line to be there. There’s an agreement between the two that we should keep going and just look away."

Easy as they may be to ignore for some, there's a huge portion of the city's population—one in five New Yorkers, according to the Food Bank for NYC's website—who rely on food pantries for weekly groceries and other resources. Food Bank for New York City distributes government, donated and wholesale food to pantries—the frontline agencies sponsored by churches and other community coalitions that reach out to communities directly. In New York's five boroughs alone, there are over 600 pantries that serve 1.4 million people.

Emily, Queens. Emily Diac, five years-old, waits while her mother shops at a pantry in Richmond Hill. Her family has relocated to Marietta, Georgia, where her mother, Mina Reyes, works at Sam’s Club and her father is a maintenance man. Life here was unaffordable. One in four New York City children doesn’t have enough to eat. Ms. Reyes didn’t want Emily or her brothers to be part of that statistic, so they moved on.

Once O'Laughlin started noticing the pantries and their lines, often wrapping around the block, she couldn't forget them. The commissioned work spun into a three-year personal project. Visiting a total of 40 food pantries in New York, O'Laughlin spent the most time in 10 of them, photographing the lines but also getting to know the people who stood in them week after week. Now, her photographs are on display at the Brooklyn Historical Society in the exhibition Hidden in Plain Sight: Portraits of Hunger in NYC.

One consequence of glancing away are the widespread misconceptions about food pantries and the people who use them. "Many people think 'Oh, that’s for the homeless,' or 'that’s like a soup kitchen.' It’s not," says O'Loughlin. Over the three years she worked on this project, O'Loughlin met working mothers, community college students, artists, the unemployed, and large families.



Some had long been out of work or recently fallen on tough times, but many were working, and sometimes held down multiple jobs. "The perception is that people aren’t working hard, but these people are working these low wage jobs and taking care of their children," she says. "They're not looking for a handout, they're trying to take care of their families—and they're smartly using the resources that the government provides to families in need."

Some of the people O'Loughlin met in line even let her photograph them in their homes. Showing people in their own space helps to humanize their experience, she says. "It's easier to empathize. When you see their dinner set with princess plates, pictures on the wall, people can relate. The line is easy to look away from, it’s not so easy to in their own home."

O'Loughlin says that she came away from the project with a lot of respect for the food pantries, which she feels are doing the best with what they have. Still, she says, it's unsustainable—a bandaid on a much larger issue. "The root of the problem is that people need to get paid more," she says. "The people in NYC are willing to work and, in many cases, are working, it's just that living expenses in the city are getting higher and higher."

Hidden in Plain Sight: Portraits of Hunger in NYC will be on view at the Brooklyn Historical Society through November 5.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story said that food banks collect food from grocery stores and distribute to food pantries. The article has been updated to note that the organization Food Bank for New York City collects government, donated and wholesale food, not food from grocery stores.

All Photos: Joey O'Loughlin

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